Fighting Fires in Early Sausalito

By Jack Tracy, Sausalito Historical Society

The following lightly edited excerpt is from Jack Tracy’s book Sausalito — Moments in Time



Around the turn of the century, membership in social and fraternal organizations was a popular way of making acquaintances. The Foresters of America, Native Sons (and Daughters) of the Golden West, the Society of Old Friends, and ethnic groups like the British Benevolent Society and the German-American Society all flourished in Sausalito.

The Sausalito Fire Department can trace its roots to February 6, 1888, when twenty-five prominent residents including J. W. Harrison, D. F. Tillinghast, John Broderick, William Reade, and Col. John Slinkey met at Arthur Jewett's blacksmith shop on Caledonia Street. At that meeting it was determined that a permanent volunteer fire department with modern equipment was a community necessity, and wheels were set in motion to accomplish that end.

Prior to that date fire protection was largely a matter of personal ability. Those with sufficient means built large water storage tanks next to their homes and kept fire hoses for personal use. Those less fortunate had to rely on bucket brigades or whatever means at hand, including a hasty exit if necessary. The North Pacific Coast Railroad maintained a rudimentary hose cart and saltwater pump at the ferry landing, and the ferryboats and smaller vessels relied on sand-filled pails stored on board. The municipal water supply was insufficient for firefighting. Before 1914 it was the common practice to shut off domestic water from 7 a.m. to evening due to short supply.

It was decided by the self-appointed committee to levy a special property tax within a new fire district to raise $1,000,000. A new horse-drawn Babcock steam pumper was purchased in March 1888, in anticipation of future tax revenues. But too many property owners within the proposed district felt the assessment was too steep, and the vote to establish a fire department failed by six votes in June 1888. It would be another sixteen years before Sausalito again attempted to establish a permanent fire department.

By the turn of the century there was again growing concern over lack of an organized fire department in Sausalito. For many residents however, ad hoc volunteer companies seemed perfectly adequate. During the debate on incorporation in 1893, public opinion held that paid fire departments were an unnecessary burden on taxpayers and that even permanent volunteers were superfluous. The big fire of July 4, 1893, that raced unchecked through Sausalito's business district changed many minds concerning the need for firefighting equipment and trained men. By 1904 the Board of Trustees was concerned enough to take some positive action. Arthur Jewett, the blacksmith, was appointed the town's first Fire Marshall. Along with his title, Jewett also got the job of building the hose carts.

The first hose cart station was established in a shed at the Sausalito Land & Ferry Company equipment yard. For this prime location at the ferry landing the city was charged twenty dollars a month. Still the carts were manned by disorganized volunteers.

Because the 1906 San Francisco fire convinced the Sausalito Board of Trustees that it was time to get serious about fire protection, they enacted an ordinance in 1909 creating a permanent Sausalito Volunteer Fire Department. Arthur Jewett was appointed Fire Chief at twenty-five dollars a month, and five more hose cart stations were established. The city bought a fire wagon and horses and by 1914 made plans for an actual firehouse. Residents were informed of the new fire alarm system, utilizing church bells to call volunteers from their homes.

The new station, housing both firewagon and horses, was built next to the San Francisco Yacht Club on Water Street (it was moved across the street in 1931, where the building stands today). To get the most out of its investment, the city later added jail cells in the station house, and to keep the chief busy when there were no fires, he was made official dogcatcher and poundmaster. There was never a shortage of stray dogs and horses wandering through backyards.

On Friday, September 20, past and present Sausalito firefighters will share their reminiscences in this panel discussion presented by the Sausalito Historical Society. The 7:00 PM panel discussion coincides with a new exhibit on fires, firemen, firehouses, and fire prevention in Sausalito in the Historical Exhibit Room on the upper level of City Hall. A reception will follow the event.



A hose cart company gathered at Richardson and Second Streets In 1909. The young lady wreathed in flowers on the cart is the mascot, a niece of Fire Chief Jewett.

This photo was gifted to the Volunteer Fire Department in Cascais, Portugal, one of Sausalito’s 3 sister cities. It proudly hangs in their conference roo,